A pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
A needle in a haystack?
A plant in central Illinois that turns coal into fertilizer?
Since the early 1980s, there has probably been more talk about the plant, but the odds against building one seemed higher than the odds for finding the gold or the needle.
Now, the talk about the plant has intensified, and maybe the odds are better this time.
Lester Teichner thinks so. He's been trying for more than a decade to build the plant.
"We hope this is the beginning of a very sensible industry based on coal," said Teichner, managing partner of COGA Industries, of Chicago.
Teichner announced last week that he wants to build an $850 million plant in Girard, 30 miles southwest of Springfield.
Using a technology called coal gasification, the plant would subject coal, water and oxygen to high temperatures and high pressure. The process creates urea, the foundation for a fertilizer that can be used for soybeans, corn and other crops in America's heartland.
As an added attraction, the plant would use the high-sulfur coal that is so plentiful in Illinois but also so objectionable to utilities and manufacturers that use coal as a fuel source. They don't like the high-sulfur coal because they must abide by increasingly stringent federal air pollution laws. They are looking for other coal - often from Western states - to the detriment of Illinois' coal industry.
"Our process is designed to use high-sulfur coal," Teichner explained. "We'll be able to separate the sulfur and sell it commercially."
Teichner envisions a plant that will take 30 to 36 months to build and will employ 2,000 construction workers. Even though financing hasn't been completed, he predicted construction could start next summer.
He forecasts a facility that will have 250 permanent workers producing $200 million worth of fertilizer annually. The plant could use 1 million tons of Illinois coal per year.
But the people in central Illinois have heard similar comments before. In the early 1980s, COGA's predecessor company talked about building a coal gasification plant in Virden, about 65 miles northeast of St. Louis.
But this company, of which Teichner was a director, couldn't attract enough financing.
Part of the problem, Teichner said, was the company's reliance on help from the old Synthetic Fuels Corp. …